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Dinner, American-style

(article, Nancy Greenleese)

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Cooking for three types of people will get your heart racing faster than a blender on the purée setting: your mother-in-law, a professional chef, and Italians.  

This cardiac condition grips me shortly after I offer to cook una vera cena Americana, a genuine American dinner, for some Italian friends. I live in Rome, where my Italian friends insist on feeding me. Sometimes, I think, they pity me for my fast-food nation. Most of the time, however, they simply want to share the cuisine that they talk about endlessly. 

“Hai mangiato bene?” they ask when friends return from a wedding, a vacation, or just an ordinary weekday lunch. Did you eat well? Yes, I’ve eaten well. Very well.

I’ve feasted on a light meal of rigatoni with fresh basil and luscious tomatoes, all bathed in rich olive oil. My fork has stood almost straight up in a hearty Tuscan dish of bucatini mixed with tuna, tomatoes, anchovies, olives, marble-sized capers, and crunchy breadcrumbs. And almost nightly, I dine at what I like to call Da Alessandro, or Alexander’s Restaurant. He’s my roommate, and he insists on cooking for me. It would be rude to refuse. 

[%image stove float=right width=300 credit="Photo courtesy Nancy Greenleese" caption="Potatoes, corn, and a tiny Italian range."]

One evening, he tossed together an omelette with zucchini flowers and a side dish of spicy cicoria, known Stateside as chicory; this leafy vegetable is similar to spinach but slightly bitter. He boiled the chicory in salted water before cooking it for a few minutes in olive oil with chopped garlic and chile pepper. At the same time, he briefly pan-fried the zucchini flowers before adding well-beaten eggs mixed with parsley, Parmesan, and milk, creating an airy omelette. The zucchini flowers’ delicate texture and sharp flavor gave the humble omelette some sophistication, while the chicory was a healthy, spicy sidekick.  There's no check at Da Alessandro; you just have to clean the dishes. 

Whether I'm in my own apartment or lounging at a friend's place, I usually wind up watching the Italians cook. I ask if I can help chop, peel, boil water. They look at me, and fear crosses their faces. 

“Tranquillo,” they say. Relax. No need for an American invasion of their kitchens.

After dozens of meals this way, I decide to offer reciprocation, ideally without regurgitation. This is not an idle goal. Years ago, a friend gave me a copy of the Joy of Cooking. Inside the front cover, he wrote, “May you never be so poor that you actually have to use this book.” I am no cook.

But, with courage undaunted by the lack of convenient American supermarkets, I choose an all-American menu: almond chicken, baked potatoes, rolls, corn on the cob. Although it’s a meal heavy on starch, the dishes are the ones that my Italian friends consider truly American after watching too many dubbed episodes of “Happy Days.” The meal will end with chocolate-chip cookies. 

Alas for my “Iron Chef: Italiana” debut, the ingredients don’t miraculously appear, ready to use, in glass bowls. I have to find them, an exploration rivaling native son Christopher Columbus’ exploration of the so-called New World. I trek to the heart of the Old World, the sprawling market in the Esquilino neighborhood.  

This public market is unusual in Rome. It offers not only stands selling six types of tomatoes but Chinese roots, Romanian hard cheeses, and spices from the Philippines. Merchants shout, “Buon giorno, bella!” as I pass, flirting to get me to buy their plump eggplants or the bass with intact heads that I swear wink at me. 

I visit seven stands, not to mention a full-service supermarket and a specialty food store, trying to put together my not-so-simple meal. Chocolate chips won’t appear in the stores until Christmas. I briefly debate putting off my meal until the signora at the sweets stand patiently explains that I could slice a chocolate bar. Sliced almonds are nowhere to be found. After two days of searching, it looks like I’ll have to cut them myself, risking a few digits. Then I find Islam — that is, Zahirul Islam, the nut-stand owner. 

“Un momento,” he says on my second trip to his stand. The Bangladeshi slips away into the madness of the market. Ten minutes later, he returns bearing a sack of sliced almonds, a miracle worthy of the nearby Vatican.  

“I know everyone here,” he says in Italian, giving me a sly smile. 

My 10 intact fingers prepare the cena on a blistering hot summer afternoon. I bread the chicken, bake the potatoes, boil the corn. All goes well, except that I nearly start the second great fire of Rome when I scorch two of the four batches of chocolate-chip cookies in my Celsius oven. The dried-out hunks are cemented to the nonstick pan like warts on a witch. This, I think, could be ugly. 

My friends, Tony Calo’ and his wife, Elzbieta Gerlach, arrive. Tony was raised in Tuscany but born in the southern region of Campania, where his 92-year-old grandmother still plucks from her garden for meals. Elzbieta is Polish by birth but Italian in spirit, having fully acclimated to her adopted country’s gastronomical delights. We crowd around my tiny table. The meal is ready. We’re steaming. The food is steaming. They look at me. They’re scared.

“Mangia! Mangia!” I exclaim. Eat! Eat!

Tony picks up the ear of corn and sticks it in his mouth like a Popsicle. He gnaws on the end, using his front teeth to dislodge the corn from the cob. He’s going to literally gag on the first course. I stifle a laugh. Gently, I show him how to bite into the corn. Soon, we’re having the debate that has fired up barbecues in America for years: What’s the proper way to eat corn? Typewriter-style, or hunt-and-peck?

Tony is a hunt-and-peck man, relishing the fresh corn. (Polenta may be an Italian staple, but fresh corn is rare.) Soon, he has bits of corn on his buttery face. Elzbieta tosses my way a “molto buono,” the ultimate compliment. I’m on my way.  

Until they try the potatoes. Italians eat potatoes, but not usually baked and whole. The variety of potato I had bought for dinner was grown in Lazio, the region that includes Rome, and has a thin yellow skin. Tony pokes at the skin, which has turned gray and wrinkled in the oven. I slice open the spud for him and explain that we often eat the skins for the vitamins underneath. He looks at me, horrified. “What about the pollution?” he demands, knowing that the smog-filled air of Rome probably coats all the vegetables grown in the region.

I assure him that I may not have Italian expertise in the kitchen, but I know how to scrub my spuds. I tell him again, making sure he realizes the hot air is coming from the steaming potato and not me. In the spirit of adventure, he relents and gobbles his spud, skin and all. 

[%image promo-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="A plate of cookies can win over even the most skeptical."]

Between mouthfuls, we talk about their impressions of American cuisine — two words they’ve never put together before. Tony says the food has a horrible reputation. It’s McDonald’s restaurants, fatty foods, and way too much salt. Elzbieta envisions families, from sea to shining sea, popping prepackaged meals into the microwave. 

Tony gets up suddenly and starts Googling on my computer. On YouTube, he finds a clip of Alberto Sordi in the 1954 hit movie “Un Americano a Roma,” or “An American in Rome.” This is cuisine, American-style, for Tony. Sordi plays an Italian who is so obsessed with America that he pretends to be from Kansas City. In a famous scene, he pushes aside a heaping plate of pasta.    

“I don’t eat macaroni,” he shouts to himself in Italian. “I am an American!”

He assembles what he thinks is a genuine American meal: bread smothered with jam and mustard, then drenched with milk. He takes a bite of his sandwich and chews a few times before spewing it on his plate. 

“Oh my God, it’s disgusting,” he says. He plunks the milk on the floor, declaring that it’s for the cat. The ingredients, he says, will help kill the bugs. With gusto, he plunges his fork into the macaroni, all the while telling himself that he’s “Americano.” 

In many ways, he is. Pasta isn’t our national specialty, but we have more to offer than Dagwood-style sandwiches and the fast-food restaurants that have colonized the world. Tony and Elzbieta admit that their image is probably distorted. As they chew — and swallow — the chicken, they say it could be an Italian dish without the almonds. It’s fresh. It’s delicious. Tony has joined the clean-plate club, while Elzbieta has put a dent in the hearty meal. 

These plates have transported them to an America that they’ve never seen and certainly never tasted: Corn that’s sweetest in the Midwest. Potatoes that make Idaho famous. Chicken that is battered, baked, fried, and boiled for dinners nationwide.

I’ve had a similar cultural exchange during many meals in Rome. The Eternal City’s menu offers more than bowls of pasta. It’s the cuisine of gladiators, who ate fava beans that are still served today. Romans, often very poor, consume an animal from its tip to its toe. Somehow, they enjoy veal intestines and deep-fried cow brains. I’ll admit that I’ve gobbled down a tongue or two. Their story, like ours, has many courses.

Our American cena reaches its final course. I present a plate piled with chocolate-chip cookies. Tony eats so many that he could serve as a backup for Santa. 

“Would you like to take home some cookies?” I ask. 


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He looks at Elzbieta like a little boy seeking his mom’s approval. She nods. He says he’ll dip them in his caffè latte_ the next morning, providing an American twist to the traditional Italian breakfast of hard, dry cookies or bread.

I’m thrilled. An Italian, born and bred, wants to savor at home some of the sweetness that America has to offer. As an added bonus, I let him take part in a classic American dining tradition: I wrap up the cookies and place them in a plastic bag. 

“A kitty container!” he says, using his best English. 

Close, I say. “Doggy bag.” And I smile, knowing that he has no dog at home. 

p(bio). [ "Nancy Greenleese"] attempts to cook Italian and American cuisine in Rome on a stove the size of an Easy-Bake Oven. Between meals, she is a radio and print reporter covering food, wine, culture, and sports.

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